Voices from the Streets: © Dominique De-Light 2006
The word homeless conjures up images of old
tramps with cans of Special Brew. Few attending the Brighton Big Issue writing
group fit into this category, the majority are far more diverse: young, old, women,
men, artists, travellers, ex-businessmen; teenagers, well educated or those
with no education. All are at the bottom of the social ladder. The only thing
in common; they've run out of places to turn and feel ignored by society.
Many are ex prisoners, who've lost their accommodation whilst inside, more than half have mental health issues; many have used drugs in the past, many still do. The majority have suffered some form of abuse as children. Most are classified as dual diagnosis, battling with drugs and mental health issues and homelessness all at the same time. They are complex clients with complex needs.
Though students are male and female, aged from between eighteen to eighty, the core members are men between twenty five to forty five. In the two years I've run the group, between five to fifteen people attend every week. Roughly half are regulars, but as it is a two hour drop in, many come once or twice before they, or their lives, move on. Roughly a third have not written since leaving school, another third's only experience is writing letters and diaries, whilst the remainder have attended writing groups in prison or completed F.E./H.E. courses. The group is as diverse in social and educational levels as are their reasons for ending up on the street.
Established for over six years, the group was inspired by the 'Streetlights' pages - the 'voice of the homeless' in The Big Issue magazine. Members write rants, reviews, poetry and short stories, submitting them weekly for publication. Those that make it into print receive payment.
One regular, who'd never written before,
now uses writing as an alternative to self harm. Another, severely withdrawn
and depressed, has been encouraged by his characters' adventures to have
adventures of his own: accessing the internet and travelling abroad. One member,
believed to have paranoid schizophrenia, was rediagnosed as exhibiting 'learnt
behaviour'. His expression through poetry and regular group attendance
considered a stabilizing influence on his condition.
Writing enables self expression. Publication gains recognition from others. Creativity raises self esteem and self respect. This is why they come. Every student emphasises their individuality when dropping in for the first time. All insist they are there purely for professional literary advice. Yet many write purely for release rather than to develop their writing skills.
Employed as a professional writer to facilitate their creative development, my work combines literary critique with informal counselling. Though many come for the therapeutic benefits, it's vital for the group's success, that it's not billed as therapy or educational, for many of this client group have had negative experiences of both.
Many rebel against structure, so I do not set exercises. They come with ideas or I suggest some. These arise naturally through conversation; talking about their lives, their experiences or their viewpoint. Trust is key. One member, now a regular, hung outside the door for weeks claiming he couldn't write. I talked to him more each time, finally asking him to write 'what he felt'. Since then, he's written pieces regularly and is published roughly every two months. Often, a reluctant member is enticed in with a cup of tea and I just ask 'for a few words in return'. Many, once putting pen to paper, don't stop, words flowing like a river through a burst dam. More confident members chose to share their work with the group but most are reluctant. They show me, wanting feedback, but prefer others only to see their efforts if they are printed. Many are surprised and touched by the recognition publication gains them from their peers.
To an outsider the group may appear chaotic: no exercises, no set students, no formal group sharing of work - difficult with changing members and people paranoid from years of drug use or poor mental health. Yet there are clear parameters. First and foremost, everyone is accepted whatever their past. How they came to be there is not important; their writing is the focus. To ensure everyone feels safe and welcome, clear boundaries are established. Everyone must be treated with respect. Intense discussions may occur but they must never get confrontational. A calm, holding environment is key. Many have had problems with boundaries in the past, so group rules are restated clearly and often, in a friendly fashion.
Equally important, with changing members, is the stability I provide. I start and end the group in a similar way; I greet people with the offer of a drink, the pens and paper are always in the same place. Time and time again, they tell me, they're sick of being seen as cases and want to be treated as individuals. Absolutely crucial is ensuring everyone gets one to one time. That critiques are tailored to the individual and assumptions are not made.
This is a group for people to be heard, if they feel they've been missed out, attention grabbing antics occur. These are to be avoided at all costs; though usually manageable, they can be potentially dangerous. As the facilitator, I have to be professional whilst not appearing too authoritative, caring but not personally involved, encouraging but honest. Members with little respect for authority, structure or rules will soon kick up a fuss if they feel you are 'faking it'. This client group is used to being brushed aside, placated, or ignored. Everyone needs to be acknowledged. We write for we feel we have something to say. All of us, whatever our situation, client, professional or academic, need an audience. We need to be heard. Our job is to ensure society listens.